The Smallest Show on Earth continues at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow until 31 October, then tours until 28 November.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Provincial England merges into silver-screen fantasy in this disarmingly romantic show born out of the union of a 1957 Ealing-styled British film comedy (starring Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers) and some of the extensive back catalogue of iconic American songwriter Irving Berlin. It’s a somewhat unexpected marriage that almost works; while Berlin’s smooth rhymes do occasionally sound out of place in the mouths of the show’s provincial characters, the vintage air of the music does effectively match the ultimate triumph of the underdog plot so beloved of post-war British cinema comedy.
Directed and co-written by Thom Southerland, with Paul Alexander, the story focuses on struggling screenwriter Matthew Spenser and his more-sensible wife Jean. Just when they’re down to their last penny, Matthew unexpectedly inherits a cinema from a little-remembered Great Uncle, a building in such a state of disrepair he’s amazed people paid to go into it.
Along with the cinema comes its eccentric staff: the obstreperous cashier and bookkeeper Mrs Fazackalee, who once provided exquisite piano accompaniment to silent movies; her overprotected son Tom, a shy film geek in love with the girl across the road; and the alcoholic projectionist Percy Quill. The Bijou Kinema is undoubtedly on its last legs, and no one would be happier to see it close than self-important Ethel, the second (chronologically speaking) wife of Albert Hardcastle, who owns the appropriately-named Grand Cinema across the road.
While Matthew and Jean initially relaunch the Bijou simply as a ploy to raise the Hardcastles’ offer to buy them out, there’s little surprise when they succumb to its charms and those of the ‘family’ which works there. This is especially the case once Jean discovers that the Hardcastles plan to demolish the Bijou to build a car park. And so the story – although primarily about ensuring that everyone gets a happy ending – is hooked on the fight between those for whom running a cinema is as much about loyalty as it is about self-expression, and the totally money-fixated nouveau rich who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
Southerland’s production is tight and lean – though, on this occasion, is arguably a tad dwarfed by the scale of the Theatre Royal’s stage. Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford are suitably likeable as the Spensers, and imbue their songs with real character and feeling. Indeed, for what is arguably a ‘juke-box’ musical, Southerland’s choice of Berlin songs is extremely good – they work dramatically very well in terms of not just plot but expressing character, and he’s not afraid to follow in Berlin’s own footsteps of reshaping the back catalogue when required.
Liza Goddard may lack the bumptious eccentricity of the film’s Mrs Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), but like the rest of the cast she imbues her role with heart and feeling, cleverly using the limits of her voice as an intrinsic part of her character. Philip Rham and Ricky Butt revel as the pantomime-esque Hardcastles, while Sam O’Rourke gives innocent Tom real heart. That said, the show’s star turn is undoubtedly Matthew Crowe as the delightful showbusiness-fixated young lawyer Robin Carter.
Like many a Berlin musical before it, The Smallest Show on Earth is determined to leave you with a smile on your face with its good-hearted happy ending. In that sense, it does feel somewhat of its time, even if it’s not clear whether that isthe late 1950s or the 1920s/30s heyday of Berlin’s work. It’s an endearing production, yet it somehow never quite settles into being more than the sum of its parts, which is an undoubted shame.
Paul F Cockburn
Readers may also be interested in:
The Smallest Show on Earth – the Irving Berlin family pays a special visit – News